Studying Constitutional Law in South Africa: My Personal Experience

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Saving Nelson Mandela book cover

The book that we are reading this summer has deep personal meaning for me. South Africa, Nelson Mandela, and the book’s author, Professor Ken Broun, all played crucial roles in my development as a lawyer.

In the summer of 1996, there was no more interesting place on Earth for an aspiring lawyer interested in constitutional law than South Africa, where new President Nelson Mandela was leading his nation toward a new, post-apartheid constitution. I had just finished my 1L year at Carolina law, and had decided to spend my summer in Cape Town, South Africa, studying international law and international business transactions at the University of the Western Cape.

My interest in South Africa had been sparked by world events, but the intellectual fire was stoked into a blaze by my exposure to Professor Broun, with whom I was going to work as a Research Assistant during my 2L year. That summer I studied law, but I also had amazing experiences. I went out late at night to a shebeen (an unlicensed shothouse) in the colored homeland of Khayelitsha. There I had long conversations with poor residents of the segregated homeland, about their lives before and after Mr. Mandela’s election as President. I watched international rugby matches featuring the Springboks – South Africa’s team – and the New Zealand All Blacks – adopted by many South African minorities as their unofficial team because it was integrated at a time when South Africa’s team was segregated. I heard white police officers abruptly switch their conversational language from English to Afrikaans, when an integrated group of students walked into the bar where they were watching the game.

Some parts of the trip were timeless. I went with a handful of classmates on a self-guided safari to Kruger National Park, where I took photos of rhinos and elephants and cape buffalo. I fell asleep in a tent listening to lions roaring in the distance, thinking that other people had had similar experiences for thousands of years. And I hoped that the campfires were as effective in holding back the things that were rustling in the surrounding bush as they had been for my ancestors.

More amazing than the wildlife was the exposure to the role of the rule of law. It is easy to take the rule of law for granted when you have it. We all want to believe that we will be treated equally, and that the same rules will apply to all people. In South Africa, the politicians were literally in the process of drafting a new constitution that would provide such guarantees, after generations of watching their rights denied, also under the rule of law. The students in our program met with the chair of the parliamentary justice committee, the South African equivalent of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and talked about the role of constitutional law in American democracy. More shocking, he listened to us, a very earnest and very young group of American law students, with great interest. We attended hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a body designed to give a voice to the victims of apartheid, and to force those who committed human rights violations to answer to the public. Because the transition from apartheid to full civil and political rights for all people in South Africa was the result of a brokered political deal, the hearings were a substitute for trials, and the truth sessions were not going to send people to prison. They were cathartic nonetheless.

Perhaps the most moving single experience was when we toured Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned after the Rivonia trial detailed in the book. We were among the first westerners to go, and the island was still a functioning prison in the process of winding down. With us was Ahmed Kathrada, one of Mandela’s co-defendants, who joined him serving a life sentence. Mr. Kathrada’s stories of courage and perseverance in resisting apartheid, and of surviving imprisonment with the other members of the African National Congress, left some of my fellow students in tears. I will never forget that boat ride back from the island, with my copy of President Mandela’s book in my hand, listening to one of the leaders of the struggle for equal rights tell part of his story.

Professor Broun’s book tells another crucial part of that story. It tells of brave South African lawyers fighting to save Mr. Mandela and Mr. Kathrada from the death penalty. It explains how Judge de Wet applied the law as he saw it, and resisted the national pressure to sentence Mandela and others to death. It is a complex and well-told tale, and one that I wish I had had access to before I went to South Africa. Welcome to UNC School of Law, where I hope you, too, will find your inspiration.

I hope my reflections help generate some thoughts of your own. If so, please share them in the comments below and/or via Twitter (#unclawbookclub) and Facebook. I look forward to engaging in further conversation with you.

Posted by Richard E. Myers II on Mon. July 7, 2014 10:00 AM
Categories: Book Club

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